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Reducing number of traffic fatalities a priority for Johnson City police chief

Becky Campbell • Jan 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

JOHNSON CITY — Looking back at incidents his officers responded to in 2007, Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry said one of his biggest concerns was the number of traffic fatalities, and he hopes this year to find ways to get motorists to slow down and drive more safely.

“We had 10 crashes that resulted in 12 deaths. Two of those (crashes) were multiple fatalities,” Lowry said recently, while reviewing crime and incident reports from last year.

One of the crashes killed three people — two instantly and a third died several days later — after what police called a “love triangle” went sour and resulted in a Johnson City man and his girlfriend in one vehicle being chased by his wife in another vehicle.

Police said Chasity Brown, 23, was chasing her husband, Israel Brown, 20, and his girlfriend, Patsy Cole, 19, down Watauga Avenue when Cole ran the red light at Oakland Avenue and struck a car driven by Valarie Mitchell.

Mitchell, 23, and her mother, Ethel Cox, 42, a passenger in the car, were killed instantly. Michelle Campbell, 18, one of Cole’s passengers, died four days after the crash as a result of her injuries.

More people die in vehicle crashes than in violent crimes in Johnson City each year, and many of those violent crime deaths are domestic, according to Lowry.

That turned out to not be the case last year when two men living in a homeless camp killed a third man who also was homeless — allegedly because he would not share his liquor with them.

“It’s hard for us to prevent a homicide,” Lowry said. “If you get mad and decide to kill someone, there’s not much the police can do about it.”

But educating the public in traffic safety is one way the police department can help curb traffic deaths, he said.

“If we can get people to slow down ... there’s something we can do to prevent traffic fatalities.”

It’s so important to Lowry because even one traffic death is preventable, he said.

“When you’re losing 12 people in a year in traffic crashes, that’s a concern,” he said.

JCPD participates in various saturation patrols and educational campaigns each year with other agencies, including the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration, to stress to motorists the importance of obeying traffic laws — especially maintaining a proper speed and wearing their seatbelt.

On the criminal side of law enforcement, one crime that continues to increase, including last year, is identity theft.

“People need to take the extra time and determine what they need to do to protect their identity,” Lowry said.

Scammers use all methods to attempt to obtain Social Security numbers, bank records or any other personal information that could allow them to start using another person’s credit, Lowry said.

“If a credit card company or bank asks for personal information, make sure it’s a legitimate institution,” he said.

Even Lowry isn’t immune to the scam attempts. He said recently he received an official looking e-mail with his bank’s logo and it requested his personal information to verify his account. Lowry printed it out and took it to his bank. The e-mail was a scam.

As 2008 gets under way, Lowry said there is a lot in store for the police department.

He has already received approval from the Tennessee Department of Safety, and funding from the city, to purchase new software for the PDAs officers use for reports and to access driving and criminal records. The new software will allow officers to prepare accident reports on the PDA, which will eliminate the last paper report they now do by hand.

There will also be more crime mapping on the PDAs, which will give officers “real time” information on what crimes occur in the city and where they occur.

“It will help us designate our resources better,” Lowry said.

Another change just down the road this year — red light cameras — goes hand in hand with Lowry’s hope of reducing traffic crashes and traffic fatalities.

But the idea of red light cameras has already stirred some public opposition.

Even so, Lowry said if the thought of cameras snapping photographs of motorists’ license plates as a traffic light turns red causes drivers to stop for a red light instead of running it, it’s worth the effort.

“If we can prevent one person from being injured or, heaven forbid, killed, the whole project has been successful,” he said.

The City Commission has approved the process to go forward and the proposal is being prepared to be put out for bids.

Most red light camera companies, such as Red Flex which installed the cameras that Kingsport uses, own the equipment, install it at no cost to the city, but keep a portion of each citation collected.

Lowry said he hopes the city “runs out of citations because everybody is obeying the law. All I want to see is people abiding by the law.”

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